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Movie reviews: 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,' 'If I Stay'

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"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" (R) *** (out of four)

Eva Green is stunning in a killer role as the "Dame," Ava Lord, in Frank Miller's "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," the long-overdue follow-up to Miller's big-screen adaptation of his graphic novel series "Sin City" in 2005. Like the original, this part prequel-part sequel mash-up of Miller's seedy film noir-on-steroids tale is a visual spectacle to behold; it's just a shame the tale runs out of gas before we can get out of town.

The first "Sin City" boasted a stellar cast – including Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson – and it's a wonder why it took nine years for "A Dame to Kill For" given the original grossed nearly $159 million worldwide against a $40 million budget. It certainly didn't have trouble bringing back many of the original stars and attracting others like Green, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Josh Brolin (in for Clive Owen) and Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the brute bodyguard Manute.

Two of the four stories that make up "A Dame to Kill For" are Miller originals from his graphic novels, while he penned the other two specifically for the movie. All woven together (some more loosely tied together than others), the film begins with Sin City thug Marv (Rourke) recounting the steps of a bloody massacre; while another focuses on private investigator Dwight's (Brolin) weakness for Ava, a former lover-turned-femme fatale who uses him and other unsuspecting gents as pawns in a deadly, money-grabbing scheme.

Levitt is at the center of a tale of a hotshot gambler who dares to take on the ultra-corrupt Sen. Roark (a powerful Powers Boothe) – who also happens to be the target of another story where stripper Nancy (Alba) looks to avenge the death of Hartigan (Willis, hovering as unseen spirit watching over Nancy as she descends into madness).

Benefiting by the advancement in computer-generated imagery (the film was all but entirely shot in front of a green screen) nine years after the original, the black-and-white with spot coloring aesthetic throughout "A Dame to Kill For" arguably makes it the most unique visual effects-heavy film to hit theaters this year.

The problem is, "A Dame to Kill For" becomes somewhat disjointed as it tries to mesh its stories together and its ultra-violence becomes repetitive. Also helping the movie earn its R rating is the liberal use of nudity and sexual content, yet it doesn't feel as exploitative when you consider characters like Ava, whose aim is to use her body and alluring presence as a weapon.

Prudes, of course, are bound to take offense (Alba and Dawson turn up the sizzle, too), but when you travel to Sin City, you have to realize that anything goes, and co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez aren't afraid to take you to its dark and depraved depths. Though lighter on substance, "A Dame to Kill For" is not a big gamble if you're merely looking to drop a few dollars for some cheap thrills.

"If I Stay" (PG-13) *** (out of four)

A strong cast and a gut-wrenching tale of life and death elevates "If I Stay," a solid big-screen adaptation of Gayle Forman's best-selling young adult novel that should hit the mark with its intended audience of teen girls.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Mia, a high school senior and gifted cellist who is the only survivor of a car crash that kills her family and leaves her in a coma clinging to life. Through an out-of-body experience, Mia recounts several pivotal moments in her life, and is reminded through the whispers of an emergency room nurse that it’s only her fight that will determine whether she lives or dies.

The dilemma, however, comes with a difficult choice: If she emerges from her coma and survives, she will become an orphan yet be with Adam (Jamie Blackley), the love of her life. If she dies, she will reunite with her family in the afterlife, but leave several other loved ones behind.

While Mia's life and death struggle is at the heart of "If I Stay," a subplot about the decidedly different lives of her and Adam (a rock musician whose life is a stark contrast to her classical sensibilities) makes for breath of fresh air in the story, helping the film avoid the schmaltzy trappings of the teen romance genre.

Sure, "If I Stay" is somewhat contrived and the outcome is fairly predictable, but the performances – especially by the versatile Moretz and the always great Mireille Enos as Mia's mother – manage to hold your interest throughout. Plus, the examination of Free Will in the film as Mia effectively chooses her fate makes for good conversation afterward. If you go to the movie, you'll want to stay.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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